A Posthumous ‘Guest of Honour’

Atom Egoyan discusses his new movie and the cleansing power of fire.

Atom Egoyan chronicles the way things used to be. The Academy Award-nominated director (The Sweet Hereafter, 1997) believes that “the miracle of film — and the recorded image — is that it does mirror the way our memory works.” Fittingly, the Canadian-Armenian director’s latest film, Guest of Honor, follows a man who’s all but lost in the past.

I can relate. Over the past couple of months, I’ve often overindulged in nostalgic feelings, thinking about the days before the pandemic, and as I prepared to speak with Egoyan, my mind drifted back to 2010, when I first interviewed the filmmaker. We met at a downtown San Francisco hotel to talk about Chloe, a domestic thriller starring Julianne Moore. I remember fussing over my list of questions, my receding hairline and the skinny black tie I’d recently purchased for my mother’s funeral — a funeral, as it turned out, that never took place.

Last week, after a 10-year interval, I interviewed Egoyan for the second time. Since then, Egoyan has released three more feature films and my head is sleek and smooth. I woke up at 7 a.m. to revise my new set of questions, waiting for the director’s phone call in my shelter-in-place leisurewear.

“I love that phrase, ‘Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be,’” Egoyan says and then laughs. “It’s dangerous to get trapped in that space, as seductive as that is, because it doesn’t really move forward.”

Jim (David Thewlis) — the man at the center of Guest of Honor — isn’t moving forward; he’s moving sideways, or parallel to the life he once loved. He’s a former chef and restaurateur who, after his wife’s death, becomes a food health inspector. He spends his days driving around town to different restaurants, hunting for code violations. Thewlis endows Jim with the preternatural calm of a man who effectively keeps his emotions in check, or perhaps as someone who’s moved beyond complicating them.

One of Egoyan’s characteristic techniques is the use of flashbacks. In this case though, Jim’s already passed away when the film begins. The story is a flashback within a flashback as seen through the eyes of a dead man and his daughter. Veronica (Laysla De Oliveira) meets with Father Greg (Luke Wilson) to arrange her father’s funeral. Over the course of the movie, she recounts her life story, as it intertwines with her father’s, to the priest. Egoyan’s sense of humor is bleak, streaked and mottled with darkness. Jim, it turns out, is the guest of honour at his own funeral. 

Throughout the film, the director shows Jim variously watching videos of his absent family or sinking into melancholic memories of them. Guest of Honour is the portrait of a passive man in decline. Egoyan believes that nostalgia can nurture and give sustenance but doesn’t provide any answers. “I can film those reflections and fragments and then I can show a process of reconstruction as it’s happening to the character,” he explains. But sometimes that reconstruction can happen in the wrong way, when the memories aren’t properly healing.

When Jim remembers cooking for his wife and daughter, the director bathes the scene in warm moonlit tones. But this visual memory barely holds a minute of screen time. “Just being able to show someone in their golden period is not really compelling,” Egoyan says. Then the director remembers the late Ian Holm’s monologue in The Sweet Hereafter. “He’s talking about the most wonderful times in their lives. Before his daughter gets a spider bite, which interrupts their idyllic moment in their cabin.”

It’s the spider bite that Egoyan finds compelling. In Guest of Honour, we’re also privy to Veronica’s state of mind. She tells Father Greg that she’s recently been released from prison. The “golden period” for both of the characters — father and daughter — is behind them. During one of Jim’s visits to the imprisoned Veronica, she says that everything that she’s become, whether good or bad, comes from him. He’s baffled by what’s become of her.  

Egoyan wrote the film coming from the place of being a parent himself. “There are worlds that one’s child lives through, that you don’t have access to,” he says. “You are largely responsible for that world, for their journey in some profound way.” 

Another early Egoyan film, The Adjuster (1991), is based on a fire that destroyed his parents’ first house in Canada. He says that it was, “an event that was cataclysmic and also clarifying as well.” As an artist, he became aware of the purifying and cleansing effect of fire. When I point out that Egoyan’s used fire again in Guest of Honour, he sounds surprised. “If I’d thought of that before I might have done something differently — but it’s interesting how things recur.” 

He draws out the comparison between Veronica and Arianne (Jennifer Dale) in The Adjuster. “Arianne, basically allows the fire to happen,” Egoyan then pauses. “You know what? I’m just realizing it’s the same thing that happens here with Veronica. She allows that fire to happen. She sees the beginning of it and she doesn’t stop it. I never thought of it until we’ve been talking.” 

Despite his protestations, Egoyan, like the rest of us, is caught up in one of his own cycles of nostalgia. For him, a primary one is the fire from his childhood that never gets extinguished. For me, it’s a funeral I never attended that, nonetheless, plays on in my mind on an extended, troubling loop.

Guest of Honour is now playing at the Roxie Cinema’s virtual theater.

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